A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person's beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey in to someone's own beliefs. Many religions attach spiritual importance to particular places: the place of birth or death of founders or saints, or to the place of their "calling" or spiritual awakening, or of their connection (visual or verbal) with the divine, or to locations where miracles were performed or witnessed, or locations where a deity is said to live or be "housed," or any site that is seen to have special spiritual powers. Such sites may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit. A person who makes such a journey is called a pilgrim.
A pilgrimage is of course a cyclic journey and the value of the experience can be realized at any of the following stags of the cycle not just the destination.
Some religions see pilgrimage as a duty however it is better if it is inspired by internal rather than dogmatic pressures. Thinking about the challenge of the journey ahead and researching the “knowns” and anticipating the “unknowns” is part of the value of the pilgrimage.
The Outward Journey:
The outward journey is one of hope and expectation and the driving force is the destination. At some point in travel the value of the journey itself will be fully appreciated. For my part the value of my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella was found observing the unbroken line of pilgrims walking the same route as had been walked by others before them, for the best part of a millennium. This visually illustrated to me the timeless nature of faith and Man’s quest to become more than human by achieving the “unachievable”. This was not simply seeing an answer to a question it was experiencing a reality.
Arrival can at some point be an anticlimax particularly if the spiritual benefit has been met on the journey. This is a time to reflect and rest. The shrine will be there tomorrow and you may appreciate it more after a rest. Beware because your destination may have had hundreds or thousands of years practice at taking advantage of pilgrims. Be on your guard in every sense.
If there is a wow factor you have chosen well when you finally visit your destination. If there is not then reflect on this and examine your expectations and try and see with your heart rather than your eyes.
Every mountaineer knows that the most dangerous part of the journey is the decent. Prepare well your departure as you may well never revisit this place and ensure you have achieved all you can and that you are fully prepared for the second half of the journey.
The Homeward journey:
Home is where the heart is. What is the value of spiritual growth if it cannot be drawn down and reflected in our everyday lives. Use the return journey (by a different route if possible) to earth yourself and understand the benefit of your experience. You will probably also be thinking about your next trip!
The following are the 13 most popular pilgrim destinations in the world and represent the exoteric choice:
The Ganges River
At approximately 20 million visits a year, the Ganga is the first in the top 13 most popular pilgrimage sites. The Ganges River, known as Ganga Ma or "Mother Ganges," runs from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal coming to a feat of 1,560 miles. To the many people living around it, and those who believe in its majesty, this river represents life, purity, and a goddess. The story of the Ganga is of how the goddess poured herself down from heaven upon the ashes of King Sarga's sons. It was this cleansing and self-sacrificing move that raised the King's sons to dwell in peace in heaven. It is also believed that anyone who touches these purifying waters even today is cleansed of all sins..
Approximately 13 million Muslims visit the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia each year, making this the second largest pilgrimage spot. Just during the final month of the Islamic calendar, about two million Muslims go to Mecca for Hajj. The pilgrimage goes back in one form or another for thousands of years to the time of Abraham and has been a tradition in the Islamic world for centuries. The Islamic pilgrimage consists of carrying out a sequence of rituals including circumambulating the kaabah individually, praying, and travelling between Safa and Marwah, the two hills Hagar ran between to find water for her son Ishmael. While the hajj in its current form is no older than Islam, pilgrimages to that site pre-dates the religion. However, unless you are a Muslim take this one off your list you cannot go there!
The Golden Temple
The Golden Temple is located in Amritsar, India and is historically a central religious site for the Sikh faith. Representing a strong Sikh foundation and distinct identity and heritage, the Golden Temple averages fifty thousand visitors daily making it the third most popular pilgrimage spot. However, anybody, regardless of cast or creed can come to this open pilgrimage spot to seek spiritual comfort, solace, and perform individual prayers.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Every year nearly 10 million people visit Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica making this Mexico City home the most popular Marian shrine in the world, and the second most visited Catholic church in the world after Saint Peter's Basilica. According to the Catholic News Agency, "Lady from Heaven" appeared to a poor Indian named Saint Juan Diego and identified herself as the Mother of the True God. She told him to build a church on the site and left an image of herself on his tilma, a low-grade cactus-cloth. According to this source, the tilma could not have stayed intact for more than 20 years but remains in place even after 470 years.
Vaishno Devi Temple
The Mata Vaishno Devi temple is located in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir near the town of Katra. Over eight million devotees visit the temple every year making this the second most popular religious site in the country. The Vaishno Devi Temple is one of the most revered sites for Hindus, sitting at an altitude of 5200 feet.
The southern French town of Lourdes is a popular site where Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary's ascent to heaven amongst other celebratory events. The U.S. National Lourdes Pilgrimage, which began fifty-seven years ago, takes groups of American pilgrims to the Marian Shrine where they offer prayers, petitions, and seek to be healed of spiritual and physical ailments. Today more than seven million visitors come to Lourdes annually.
About 4.2 million people visit the Vatican in Rome, Italy every year. Catholics believe it to be a holy place with monuments to various saints and papal authority houses all circled around. It is said that it was here in the center of the circus was where St. Peter took his last breath. Since 1929, Vatican city has been an independent, self-governing city-state.
Over 2 million tourists visit the city of Jerusalem annually. It is an important location for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The Jewish people see Jerusalem as the Biblical Zion, the City of David, the site of Solomon's Temple, and the eternal capital of the Israelite nation. For Christians, it is the site of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection of Jesus. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third most revered site in Islam as it was here that Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
As Jesus' birthplace, the city of Bethlehem is a popular pilgrimage site particularly during Christmas when all the city's hotel rooms are booked solid. Annually, nearly 1.4 million people visit the city and the surrounding historical sites. The number of visitors has steadily been on the rise in recent years according to Israeli government figures.
In Konya, Turkey, Dervish dancer figurines are seen in shop windows in the centre of Konya, one of the most important religious center in Turkey with about 2 million visitors a year. Muslims and foreign tourists visit Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi's tomb. On 17 December 1273, the founder of the Mevlevi Sufi Brotherhood, and now one of the most widely read poets in the world, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, died in Konya. The Mevlana mausoleum with its mosque, dance hall, dervish living quarters, school and tombs of various leading adherents to the Mevlevi order continue to draw pilgrims.
According to an Italian study, Machu Picchu was never an actual city, but an Incan pilgrimage site. It seemed to have been the private estate of the emperor Pachacuti and was symbolically centered to the Andean vision of the cosmos. Even today, nearly one million people visit this serene mountain top annually with 2500 people arriving daily from May until September.
According to Buddhist tradition, it was at this spot that Siddharta Gautama meditated for 49 days before attaining enlightenment. However, the tree is sacred for other reasons as well. Known as the "mythical World Tree," some say it is here that believers can reach liberation through spiritual development. Between 800,000 to over a million people mainly from Asia visit the Bodi Tree each year making this the 12th most popular pilgrimage spot.
Over half a million people visit the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, the largest city in Northern Israel. The gardens are geometric, symmetrical, and lined by rows and avenues of flowers creating a serene environment of meditative thought and peaceful resilience. The centre of the site encompasses and protects the visitors without any harsh walls.
The ancient religions are not well represented on the exoteric list and for those who seek truth wherever it can be found the world has many jewels to appreciate.
Egypt has several essential destinations including Karnac, Abydos, Edfu and Philae. Just avoid the Nile cruise if you can.
Rennes le Chateau and the whole D’oc region are steeped in esoteric lore. The great gothic cathedrals are good stopping off points on the way and Carnac is well deserving of a pilgrimage of its own.
Trace the steps of the re-emergence of Hermeticism and see where the great artists illustrated it. Try and avoid Chiantishire (Tuscany) in August.
Greece and the Greek islands
There are so many ancient sites and any excuse to be in this region is usually good enough to add it to the list. Delphi and Delos are recognized choices but don’t forget the landscapes. Approaching Santorini by early morning ferry with the sun rising in the background is a truly magical experience.
Safed in Israel is like Kabbalah HQ and well worth a longer stay. The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem is a fine antidote to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The caves under the ancient city of course have their Masonic connection.
Has lots to offer beyond Istanbul and the Agia Sophia. My next pilgrimage is to Cappadocia so I will update this page after my visit.
Glastonbury, Avebury and Stonehenge are the obvious choices but see Julian Copes “The Modern Antiquarian” for most of all the other possibilities in UK.
London has its secrets too, which include a Templar church, three Cocteaux in a church and the British Museum, place of all the Gods. Also try visit the Prostitute cemetery in Southwark and of course Grand Lodge.
The Temple Church off Fleet Street is a late-12th-century church in London located between Fleet Street and the River Thames, built for and by the Knights Templar as their English headquarters. In modern times, two Inns of Court (Inner Temple and Middle Temple) both use the church. It is famous for its effigy tombs and for being a round church. It was heavily damaged during the Second World War but has been largely restored. The area around the Temple Church is known as the Temple and nearby is Temple Bar and Temple tube station.
Jean Cocteau’s three frescoes of the Annunciation, Crucifixion and Assumption which are on permanent display at Notre Dame de France, a French Catholic Church on Leicester Place, just off Leicester Square. Executed on church walls, they are not a moveable feast.
A visit to The British Museum is not complete without a peek at Dee’s shewstone and a hunt for Garudas. Follow it with a visit to Atlantis (the book shop not the city!) Treadwell’s and Watkins. Whilst in Covent garden visit Grand Lodge and it’s amazing library.
The site of the Crossbones Graveyard in Southwark, from late medieval times was an un-consecrated burial site for prostitutes – and later, paupers – until its closure in the 19th century on public-health grounds. The "shrine" around it honours up to 15,000 bodies buried on the site, and is described as, a "place of healing where the Wild Feminine is honoured and celebrated for all that she is – whore and virgin, mother and lover, maiden and crone, creator and destroyer". But don’t let that put you off it is a genuinely moving experience.
Temple of the Tooth
The Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy, Sri Lanka, houses the relic of the tooth of Buddha which is said to have been smuggled to the island following the cremation of Gautama Buddha. It is also the centre of the annual Esala Peranera, when the relic of the tooth is carried through Kandy on elephant back.
Cao Dai Temple
The Cao Dai faith, which was established in 1926 and is a fascinating faith which is mainly practiced in Vietnam and follows the teaching of Buddha's Sages and Saints. The centre of the faith is at the Tay Ninh Holy See temple where there are several services held daily. The Cao Dai Faith appears to be very inclusive and many prophets and historical figures belonging to most of the major religions of the world are venerated by it's followers.
Pilgrimages can you see be to sites of great disaster and injustice as they can teach us the lessons learned from the errors of the past and point to a positive formed from a great evil. Who could visit Auschwitz or Culloden without being effected by it?
There are other types of pilgrimage which are suitable for the seeker of light and the following is just one example:
As Man has to perfectly balance the elements within him to develop his spirit then close experience of the elements is essential. So the elements, Air, Water, Fire and Earth how can we best experience, participate and commune with them in order that we can equilibrate them?
Air is an easy one. Take a ride in a hot air balloon, climb up Glastonbury Tor or take the cable car up to the Aguille Du Midi in Chamonix. You need to sense both the calm and the power.
Water can be experienced by simple submersion or snorkelling or a longer more challenging swim in the sea. Body boarding (surfing for dummies) is a good way to experience the power and nature of the element.
Earth is more tricky than you may realise. You can just go underground to a large cave but that won’t really do the trick. The close and personal nature of potholing is an option for some but overall you need to see the repetition of crystalline structures and the permanence of the forms. Ironically we need to visit sites where structure and permanence have been disturbed to see and appreciate the element. The Vivian Quarries at Llanberis or Cheddar Gorge are limper possibilities.
Fire is clearly a bit of a challenge. A visit to a steel works or foundry in full production is a possibility if you can find one! And if you can get past the Health and Safety Police. Getting close enough to an active volcano to feel the benefit and get away to appreciate it is the challenge. One of the live volcanic islands off Santorini in the Cyclades is a good choice. You are looking for the colours of fire and the experience of the heat. Meditation whist focusing on a single candle is the really soft option but you could always do it in a Hammam in Istanbul.
In conclusion pilgrimage as I have described it, at its worst, is no more than focused tourism, but at its best, it is life enhancing and the trigger for spiritual growth. The list of destinations is far from exhaustive and I welcome any suggestions you may know of. Email them to me, (firstname.lastname@example.org), and we will update this page with your recommendations. Don’t forget the destination doesn't have to involve travelling great distances or great expense - some portion of truth may lie just around the corner if you are prepared to look.